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Hannah Bae (Asia): Undeterred by Failures, Google Charts New Territory (Part 2)

Asia has been a notoriously stubborn region in its defiance of Google’s meteoric rise elsewhere around the world. In Part 1, we looked at the difficult road Google has traveled in South Korea, whose Internet is dominated by well-established local search players and monitored strictly by government regulators.

The story is the same for Google in the rest of tech-savvy Northeast Asia. In China, the company has fought a much-publicized battle with the homegrown search engine Baidu, whose executives bristle at descriptions of their company as “the Chinese version of Google.”

Meanwhile, in Japan, Yahoo Japan has maintained a stranglehold over its home market, unlike its U.S. counterpart that has ceded much ground to Google. While the Japanese and U.S. sites may share the same name, Yahoo U.S. only owns a one-third stake in Japan operations.

Now Google is looking further south for a hopeful shift in its fortunes. The company is pouring more than $200 million into three new data centers  -- one each in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- set to be completed in one to two years.

The news was not welcome in South Korea, where Google executive Eric Schmidt visited soon after the announcement. During his press conference at the Google Korea headquarters, one South Korean journalist even posed a question about whether the warm weather in the three chosen locales played a part in the decision.

The new centers, which would be the first in Asia-Pacific that Google owns in full, are expected to speed up its services and Internet security in the region, the company said in a statement.

Asia holds a lot of opportunity for Google. In high-tech countries in Northeast Asia and in business hubs, residents are fast becoming early adopters of new technologies, including mobile computing. In Asia’s emerging markets, the number of new users is growing, bringing Web traffic up as well.

But Google isn’t likely to experience smooth sailing as it charts new ground in the region. The company likes to highlight “openness” as a business principle, which doesn’t exactly jibe with the crackdowns on online debate in countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

In addition, the company’s emphasis on clean, uniform layouts on its sites from country to country have led to accusations here that it is unwilling to be flexible or modify itself to fit local preferences.

“Google, as a platform operator, follows the principle that it will offer a universal service globally, and that has generally been a successful policy,” Kim Seong-gon, secretary general of the Korea Association of Game Industry, was quoted as saying in a Korean media report But due to its conservative approach, it is struggling in the three Northeast Asian countries.”

For example, Google’s signature stark white screen literally pales in comparison to the busyness of Naver, South Korea’s most popular Web portal.

Whether you love Google or hate it, you’ll likely be tracking its performance in the key Asian market in the coming years. It remains to be seen whether its latest investment in Asia will pay off, but one thing’s for sure: Google has its work cut out for itself.

By Hannah Bae, an American journalist based in Seoul. A former intern at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, she is a tech enthusiast. You can follow her on Twitter at @hanbae.

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